Despite the tossed off hootenanny atmosphere they cultivate, their songcraft is extremely ambitious, almost schizophrenic in its breadth and reach.
Who needs a drum kit? The Philadelphia rock/alt-country/gospel outfit Hoots and Hellmouth generally eschew any percussion that can’t be easily transported to the front porch, choosing washboards, tambourines, spoons, and footstomps over the usual snare, bass, and high hat, yet their sound is no less raucous or irresistibly danceable for the substitution.
Their second album, The Holy Open Secret, is a worthy follow-up to their barn-burning first record. Producer Bill Moriarty has become something of a local Phil Spector, svengali-like in his ability to steer acclaimed homegrown acts to the cusp of national attention. His records with groups like Man Man and Dr. Dog elevated them from the house party and church basement circuit to appearances on network television and reviews in Rolling Stone. In the process he’s developed an idiosyncratic Philadelphia indie rock sound, characterized by constantly shifting instrumental textures, rich harmonies, and dense arrangements that somehow still sound chaotic and wild – complex houses of cards, always on the verge of glorious collapse.
Moriarty’s arrangements are a perfect fit for Hoots and Hellmouth’s odd hodgepodge of influences. Despite the tossed-off hootenanny atmosphere they cultivate, their songcraft is extremely ambitious, almost schizophrenic in its breadth and reach. “What Good Are Plowshares if We Use Them Like Swords” is a hard, razor-edged Motown single, chugging along on a viciously simple and ominous guitar riff, before segueing into the laughing Tom Waits kitchen sink stomp of “The Family Band”. “You and All of Us” is a wonderful mess: imprecise harmonies, an impossibly catchy, almost rag-time guitar line, and drunken, woozy hollering. The songs come at you from twelve directions at once, and your defenses are useless. They win you over.
The album wrings a lot from the tension between the band’s two songwriters and vocalists, Sean Hoots and Andrew "Hellmouth" Gray. Hoots’ songs are generally the better ones. His melodies move in more unexpected directions -- the soulful gospel vibe and bluegrass rhythms seem to be his contribution. In comparison, the Hellmouth tracks -- mostly contemplative singer-songwriter ballads -- seem very routine and predictable. Still, with Hoots throwing such a wide variety of sounds into a blender and coldly snarling his way through oblique lyrics, there's something warm and personal about Hellmouth's delivery, his broad chords and dusty melodies, the creakily expansive, oaken timbre of his voice. Amidst all of Hoots' tight arrangements, falsettos, bible quotes, and whiplash key changes, a well sung, simply stated lyric like "in this kitchen all I see are a thousand dishes and me" isn’t just prosaic -- it's intimate, familiar, true.
Gray doesn't possess even half of Hoots' impressive talent, but his well-worn folk holds an important place on the record. Without it, Hoots' hyperactive musical imagination and surplus of ideas might grow wearying, even unpleasant.
Hoots is the kite. Hellmouth is the string. The Holy Open Secret tugs you skyward.